As reports emerge of the devastation caused by the avalanches in Chitral, in Northern Pakistan, we speak to experts to determine whether climate change may be to blame for the record breaking snowfall.
When most non- Pakistani’s ask about Pakistan, one of the last things they expect to hear is about snowfall. This is probably thanks to popular TV series portraying Pakistan as a city somewhere in Saudi Arabia. But the snowfall, or to be more accurate, the north of Pakistan and its people and culture are what we love to brag about to people to entice them to visit- it is considered to be one of the most beautiful places in the world.
These areas also rely on tourism for their economy. Chitral in particular is well known not only for its scenic beauty and wildlife, but also because of the unique Kalaash tribe that lives there. But climate change could be threatening the resilience of these communities, and impacting its economy.
A study by the Pakistan Meteorological Department in 2009 observed that Pakistan experienced 0.76°C rise in temperature during last 40 years. However, the increase in temperature in the mountain environment hosting thousands of glaciers was recorded as 1.5°C during the same time period.
What this has meant for Pakistan is the increased risk of Glacial Lake Outburst Floods. The Pakistan Natonal Disaster Management Authority issued a GLOF Alert, specifically to Chitral on the 2nd of February 2017. But while the temperature may be increasing, snowfall patterns are becoming more and more erratic.
In fact, snowfall in Chitral has broken records this year, according to the chief of the Pakistan Meteorolgical Department, Ghulam Rasul. Snowfall in Chitral had dropped from 2007, but has currently exceeded more than 5 feet 3.5 inches- much more than the highest recorded 4.5 feet in 2006.
And it has been devastating. Reports vary, but there have been anywhere between 9 and 15 deaths due to landslides and avalanches caused by the snowfall. A report by the National Disaster Management Authority puts the number of houses damaged at 22.
Can Climate Change be to blame for this?
Dr. Qamar Uz Zaman Chaudhry, the author of Pakistan’s National Climate Change Policy, had an interesting take. ‘ If we look at the heavy snowfall trigging avalanche in Chitral the other day then it is difficult to link it as a single weather event to climate change,’ he says, ‘ but when we consider the erraticness of the climate behaviour in the area which include extreme drought conditions followed by heavy rainfall and snowfall then we can say with greater confidence, that yes this climate behaviour is linked to climate change’.
Dr Ghulam Rasul, the Director of Pakistan’s Meteorological Department agrees that the current snowfall in Chitral is most definitely linked to climate change. Previous studies by the department have confirmed the erratic weather patterns, particularly in Pakistan’s most sensitive geographies, are likely to continue.
And these erratic weather patterns confirm that climate change, at least for Pakistan, is increasingly becoming a human rights issue. The loss of lives, livelihoods and houses in this incident in Chitral confirms this.
Pakistan has been successful in having a $36 million GLOF project approved by the GCF- however, before this funding is actually disbursed, Dr. Qamar feels that preparedness is the key to avoiding further losses. ‘We may strengthen the early warning system and community awareness arising and involvement in such as system needs to be ensured. Housing needs to be climate resilient and appropriately located based on area risk mapping.’
While the longer term impacts of these erratic weather patterns in Chitral, and upon its economy are yet unknown, these events will continue to test the resilience of indigenous people. And for everyone else, who visit Chitral as tourists, mainly to revel in its scenic beauty and snow, may be less inclined to visit after all the destruction these landslides have left in their wake. Another blow to the economy of the north.